Political economists have long argued that popular elections too often make a casualty of good government, because the rational voter concludes that the effort to gather the information needed for a well-informed decision isn't worth the small chance his vote will change the outcome. In fact, so the argument goes, this brand of rationality explains the general political ignorance of most citizens in modern democracies. Until last week, anyway.
Democracy, meet Peyton Hillis, the Cleveland Browns running back who trampled a field of (mostly) superstar representatives from every NFL team in a five-round vote to determine the cover boy for the 2012 edition of the mega-popular video game Madden NFL.
By any account, this was an improbable run. Even the most rabid Browns fan has to agree with NBC's Mike Florio, that "a year ago, Hillis on the Madden cover would have sounded like a joke." Many saw him as an afterthought in the trade that sent Brady Quinn to Denver in exchange for Hillis and a draft pick. "It wasn't even a sure thing that Hillis would make the Browns' roster," says Florio. "And now [he's] the public face of one of the most prominent consumer products associated with the NFL."
Here, it's impossible not to connect the improbability of Hillis' run with that of Browns fans' continued support of the franchise in the wake of the Modell Affair and the decade of unprecedented incompetence that has followed it. Hillis was the beneficiary of an impressive social-media campaign that included a front-page run on the Browns' official website, a Facebook campaign with more than 6,000 members, and a constant stream of support on Twitter, including from Hillis' teammates Josh Cribbs, Colt McCoy, Carlton Mitchell, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Eric Wright, among others.
John Carroll senior and Willowick native Tom Everette led the netroots charge. "I saw fan pages popping up for other players in the voting, specifically [Steelers receiver] Hines Ward," Everette says, "and I told myself as a Browns fan, there is no way I would want to see someone like [Ward] end up on the cover. So I quickly created a legitimate-looking [Facebook] page. From there, the [support] shot up." During the campaign, Everette explained that "this is a chance to do something great, and I'm not giving up."
And by now you might be wondering what rationality has to do with any Browns fan, let alone the ones who helped cast more than 650,000 votes for Hillis in the final round alone. Here it should be enough to note that some political issues are much less complicated than others.
But even if you don't believe in the intrinsic superiority of the Orange and Brown, you can at least understand that everyone loves an underdog. And efficiency too, at least as applied to civil society's long war against the fabled "Madden Curse," a popular metaphysical explanation for every bit of misfortune that's befallen the 15 stars who've come before Hillis on the box's cover. While some see the notion of a Madden Curse as dangerous escapism from the principles of "what goes up must come down" and "football is dangerous," who better to take it on than a man from the most impossibly cursed town in all of sport? At worst it's the quintessential clash of invisible fire against invisible fire.
In every way that matters, victory for Hillis was the objectively correct result. But to say that all politics should be so simple really misses the point. However many elections still don't turn out for the best, improved information flow through better technology has to be helping. How much? Who really knows, but when something as right as the Hillis campaign can emerge from the bizarre confluence of video game culture, base tribalism, and the 24-hour sports news cycle, we have to think it's one to grow on. We have to think that things are looking up.
Pattakos is a Northeast Ohio attorney and publisher of ClevelandFrowns.com.
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